Term of Award

Spring 2017

Degree Name

Master of Science in Experimental Psychology (M.S.)

Document Type and Release Option

Thesis (open access)

Copyright Statement / License for Reuse

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License.


Department of Psychology

Committee Chair

Michael Nielsen

Committee Member 1

Lawrence Locker

Committee Member 2

Jason Slone


In recent years, attitudes about religion/spirituality have become more pluralistic (Pew Research Center, 2015a). At the same time, the number of individuals who identify themselves as nonreligious, atheist or agnostic are growing (Pew Research Center, 2015b), yet we are lacking words and research to describe their attributions of transcendence in language not bound to religious concepts. This study aims at examining both concepts – holiness and transcendence – in their similarities and differences through assessing cognitive and emotional processes involved in experiences of objects.

The study consisted of two parts with a total of 206 Christian and 52 nonreligious/atheistic/agnostic participants. In study one, 146 students (113 Christians, 33 Nonreligious/Atheists/Agnostics, or NAA) categorized 30 objects as holy or not, as well as transcendent or not. They did so either intuitively or after writing about their understanding of holiness/transcendence beforehand (systematic thinking condition). In study two, different participants (N=114, 93 Christians, 21 NAA) evaluated the same 30 objects on the ability to elicit emotions like awe, elevation and joy, the perceived purity of the objects, as well as their importance in culture and religion.

Results showed that there was no difference in perceptions of holiness and transcendence in the intuitive or systematic thinking condition. While Christians categorized about the same number of items as transcendent and holy as NAA participants, objects were generally more easily categorized as transcendent than as holy in both groups.

A factor analysis and regression showed that perceived holiness of objects among Christians was predicted mostly by the factors religion (b=.906), and awe (b .261), Adj. R2=.881. Transcendence similarly was most correlated with the factor of religion (b=.720) and awe (b=.510), but the factor of happiness/connectedness also contributed (b=.207), R2=.821. Among Nonreligious/Atheist/Agnostics, perceived holiness was predicted by the relation to religion (b=.909), and additionally negatively predicted by experienced connectedness/happiness (b = -.250), Adj. R2 =.880. Transcendence, even among Nonreligious/Atheist/Agnostics, was predicted by objects’ relation to religion (b=.698) and their relation to awe (b=.344), with the factor joy/connectivity (b=.226, p=.059) approaching significance, overall Adj. R2 = .618. Results show that while there is similarity between the concepts of holiness and transcendence, transcendence is distinct in including a sense of happiness/connectedness not present in religion.

Research Data and Supplementary Material